Frankly, we do not know what it is really like to be at the brink of death (unless we have been there). I do not know what it is like to face the immediate prospect of death after sixty or more years of living. I do know what it is like to lead a day-to-day life with severe pain and no guarantee the pain will end. I know what it is like to wake-up after a surgery with a breathing tube still in my throat and to have that tube removed, followed by a few moments of horror while my body chooses to ignore my brain's will to live--and during that time to be fully aware of the blank stares of the nurses surrounding me, yet unable to express myself. I also know what it is like to face death at the age of twenty, as the result of a blood infection acquired following another surgery, and to then spend three months in the hospital relearning basic skills such as sitting in a chair and walking. I know what it is like to be so weak as to need assistance turning over in a hospital bed--again, with no guarantee that things would improve rather than get worse.
As I experienced more and more extreme states of dependency--the ones that I had been socialized to view as pitiable, I was fortunately surrounded by the love that allowed me to discard the notion that I was a bother to take care of or that I had (as a consequence of my relatively limited physical condition) ceased to possess anything of value to society. Instead of falling prey to popular misconceptions of disability and illness, I found myself just experiencing life. I discovered new ways to see myself and my relationship to others. My time of apparent dependency was a time for learning. All it took was the actual experience to shift my thinking. I take that back. A crucial factor transforming my experience into a positive, rather than negative, one was that I had not been socialized to believe that when people have lived to be twenty that they have probably experienced enough, so it would be noble to "die with dignity" and clear the way for younger folks. I experienced extreme physical dependency and it fostered compassion in the people around me and myself. I have absolutely no shame about that—at least not anymore. When we focus exclusively on what we lose as we journey along our paths, we fail to see what we have gained.
It is just as plausible that individuals approaching death encounter valuable insights into humanity as it is that they still think like healthy people who only construe the experience as horrible, with great suffering and pain. When we actually find ourselves experiencing alternative physical states of being, we are faced with the opportunity to discover for ourselves new meanings and to share them with our loved ones and society. That is, unless the environment is too inhospitable and *guilt* is so entrenched in our psyche as the appropriate response because the social meaning is that we are inhibiting the lives of others. I implore everyone, rather than feeling sorry for loved ones for the pain and suffering they must be experiencing as death approaches, to surround them with compassion, love, and acceptance. It is then that we may truly step outside ourselves and appreciate the wonder of the human condition. Before we talk about dying with dignity, let us first clarify what it means to live with dignity.
Thursday, October 02, 2003
The following is an excerpt from an e-mail I received from Jamie P, a reader from South Bend, IN, in response to my post about advances in social psychology and advance directives. It's from something she originally submitted to the editorial page of a newspaper.